FCC Chair On 5G Future: “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet.”

If you’re the wireless industry, you have to pay attention to the FCC. Everything it does determines everything you can do. So it’s not surprising that at the industry’s big annual event today, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler would take the stage for a keynote. And in that speech, he brought together a whole bunch of different FCC actions into one whole picture of what he hopes the communications future can be.

Wheeler gave remarks today at the CTIA’s annual Super Mobility conference — the time when the wireless industry’s biggest trade group brings together business, regulators, and investors to talk about how gosh-darned great the entire mobile industry is.

And with all that net neutrality unpleasantness behind us — at least, for now — Wheeler was able to devote his remarks to a place where he and industry do actually see eye-to-eye: investments, upgrades, and the fast, speedy future of 5G networks.

MORE: What the heck is 5G, anyway?

Wheeler was himself CEO of the CTIA from 1992 to 2004, and he began his keynote speech by pointing out just how much changed in that decade. In 1992, the idea of a car phone or a phone that could fit in your bag was still a novel new idea; 10 million people had one. By 2004, the Motorola Razr was the it thing, teenagers everywhere already flummoxed their parents with nonstop texting, feature phones were taking off, and the iPhone — though no-one outside of Apple knew it yet — was on the near horizon, waiting to change everything.

In short, Wheeler said, mobile has changed everything. The consumer “now has an ever-more powerful smartphone computer in her hand, giving her the power to consume, and perhaps more important, create information like never before,” Wheeler said. “This new paradigm has already unleashed significant new productivity; transformed the role of the media; and put us on the path to the most important network-driven transformation of society in human history.”

And while Wheeler may have been buttering up his audience, he’s not wrong. But still, he noted, there is so much further to go. 5G is on the horizon, Wheeler said, and when it comes to the potential of mobile, well, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

5G, Wheeler remarked, “is the missing piece of the puzzle depicting the wireless future.” Its promise of high speed, high-capacity, low-latency networks will be great for consumers and people who make money off them. Or, to put it in industry’s favorite buzz-jargon, as Wheeler did, it “will open up hugely disruptive new value propositions for the users of networks.”

Okay, great, fine. But how do we get to there from here? Wheeler, as he often does, had a three-point strategy ready to go. The three keys? Spectrum, competition, and streamlining.

The FCC has already been highly active on Wheeler’s first point, making spectrum available. There’s an auction going on right now to sort out some low-range airwaves, and the Commission voted earlier this year to open up a huge swath of high-frequency spectrum for the wireless industry to go develop 5G with.

In all this, Wheeler said, “The Commission sticks to a proven formula: Lead the world in spectrum availability, encourage and protect innovation-driving competition, and stay out of the way of technological development and the details of implementation.”

(Wheeler knows his audience; industry really likes it any time the FCC volunteers to stay out of the way.)

The other two keys of Wheeler’s 5G plan are more physically tangible. One is backhaul — the capacity to carry all that wireless traffic from towers to servers — and the other, siting — where you put those towers.

The backhaul is where competition comes in, Wheeler said. If one company owns all the fiber, and all the rights to lay more, well, that’s a problem. And that’s where another recent action comes in: the overhaul of “special access” for business data services. That reform proposal, Wheeler says, will “encourage innovation and investment” in the space, “while ensuring that lack of competition in some places cannot be used to hold 5G hostage.”

As for siting, that’s another infrastructure issue. 5G takes a whole lot of little nodes — “maybe even millions” of new antennas, Wheeler said. Some streamlining deals, like one the FCC announced in August with some historical societies, are already in place. But to make a real go of it, Wheeler said, industry’s going to need to sell the hell out of their vision of the future.

“5G’s not a technology,” Wheeler explained, “it’s a revolution.”

“We may all love the fabulous engineering in 5G,” he said to a crowd of techies, “but if we want the technology to be successfully deployed, we need to talk about its benefits for people and their communities. … Let’s talk about the benefits of smart-city energy grids, safer transportation networks, and new opportunities to improve health care. Let’s paint the picture of how 5G will unleash immersive education and entertainment industries, and how 5G will unlock new ways for local employers to grow, whether it’s a small specialty shop or a large factory, creating new jobs and improving services for the community.”

Wheeler did, however, briefly rein in his technological optimism to remind the industry of its obligations — specifically, privacy.

The FCC’s current ISP privacy proposal is the most controversial item the commission has taken up since net neutrality. Industry hates it, and enjoys being able to make privacy a costly luxury to monetize consumers.

Wheeler didn’t get into that whole complicated business during his remarks, but he did gently remind carriers that as far as he’s concerned, they’re on notice. “Privacy is another important topic,” he said. “A lot of the value of 5G will come from the exploitation of Big Data, so it’s imperative that carriers have privacy policies that enable customers to understand and control how their personal information is being used.”

In one speech, then, Wheeler made all the threads of FCC regulation over the past year start to come together into a comprehensible whole — as when the A, B, and C plots of a novel finally weave together towards a climax. That said, if the climax is an actual robust 5G infrastructure, we’re going to be waiting a long, long time — and turning many more pages — before we get there.

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